Spring Preview: Defensive End
Notre Dame must replace a great deal of production and leadership at the defensive end position, but the way line coach Mike Elston has recruited and developed players in recent seasons, the Irish are in a unique position to reload at the position.
Let’s take a look at the defensive end position as we head into the spring.
SPRING DEPTH CHART
Notre Dame is in a unique position in that every end that will be on the roster in the fall is already on campus. All three of Notre Dame’s freshmen ends are early enrollees, which will give Elston a great opportunity to work with the same group from now until the Irish head to Dublin.
There are 10 ends on the roster right now, but that could narrow down a bit by the time we get into the fall. Senior Kofi Wardlow has been battling to stay healthy and is a question mark, and freshman Rylie Mills could eventually slide inside and play three-technique.
But barring the staff adding a graduate transfer or a linebacker sliding down to drop sometime between now and fall camp there will be no additions to the end depth chart.
READY FOR THE NEXT LEVEL?
It wasn’t that long ago that Notre Dame was a program that struggled to put quality edge players on the field, and it wasn’t that long ago that losing a trio like Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones would be devastating to the Irish defense. That trio combined for 91 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks this past season.
The depth at the position is a question mark heading into the spring, but the starting lineup seems set, and there is the talent coming back to give Notre Dame a chance to be every bit as good - if not better - on the edge next season, at least in the starting lineup.
When he went down in the fourth game of the season, a case could be made that Daelin Hayes was playing as well - or better - than any defensive lineman on the roster. Hayes was an impact player against the run and his versatility on the edge was outstanding. Whether it was setting the edge, making plays in pursuit from behind or tipping a pass to set up a Kyle Hamilton pick six, Hayes was making a big impact on the game.
His injury hurt the Irish defense in 2019, but it will pay huge dividends in 2020, assuming he can get back to full depth, and stay there. The 2019 season was supposed to be his last, but getting injured when he did allowed the veteran end to get a medical redshirt for 2020. Hayes brings size, leadership and top-notch athleticism to the drop position. He’ll likely never be the edge rusher that Okwara was, but his all-around game is better.
There are two questions with Hayes in 2020. The first is easy, will he be healthy and be able to stay healthy, which I just mentioned. Remember, Hayes missed big chunks of two seasons in high school with shoulder injuries, although he’s been mostly healthy in college. The second is can he finally take the pass rushing prowess he’s shown in practice and turn it into pass rushing production on Saturdays.
Okwara had a great first step, but so does Hayes. The difference is Okwara hunted quarterbacks and was aggressive off the edge. Hayes doesn’t turn it loose very often, at least not in games. He seems to hold something back as a pass rusher, and if he can get past that and let it go off the edge he should become a more effective pass rusher.
Kareem had a strong final season, providing the defense with leadership, stout run defense and clutch play off the edge. But just like I said with Hayes in the first four games, a case could be made that Adetokunbo Ogundeji was Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman in the final three games of the season.
Ogundeji was solid all season, but he turned it up another level down the stretch. It began with a breakout performance against Boston College, when the senior end dominated, racking up six tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks. He followed that up with 2.5 TFL’s and 2.5 sacks in the final two games against Stanford and Iowa State.
The Wes Bloomfield, Mich. native has exceptional length, and he was a quality run defender all season. He’s strong, his length allows him to keep blockers off his body, he plays hard and he shows a good burst off the edge. All that is missing from Ogundeji’s game is a wider array of pass rush moves, which could limit him against higher end tackles. If he can add that to his game he could have a breakout season and quickly emerge as one of the nation’s better edge defenders.
While the starting ends could be every bit as good as last season, what made the 2018 and 2019 defensive line so good was that Notre Dame could attack opponents in waves on the edge. You had Okwara and Hayes at drop, and then Jamir Jones filled that role quite well when Hayes went down. You had Kareem and Ogundeji at end, and no matter who was on the field the Irish got production from the end position.
A perfect example was this play against Virginia:
Notre Dame’s offense had been sputtering and the Irish trailed in the second half of the game before the defense made two game-changing plays. On both snaps it was a backup end that played a crucial role, with Jones making the strip sack on the first play and Ogundeji recovering a fumble for a touchdown on the second.
Whether or not Notre Dame has that kind of depth next season remains to be seen. A pair of juniors will get a chance to take advantage of the departures of Kareem, Okwara and Jones to jump into the rotation.
Ovie Oghoufo moved to drop last spring and showed flashes of impact edge rushing skills. He has an excellent burst off the edge and impressive closing speed, but he’s still learning the nuances of the position and he must get stronger in order to hold up against the run.
I expect Oghoufo to have a role as a pass rusher next season, but if he wants to be a true rotation player that can take snaps on every down - and produce - he’ll need to improve his ability to handle the run game.
Rising junior Justin Ademilola is the polar opposite of Oghoufo. He’s an advanced technician that knows how to play the game and how to make plays. Ademilola hasn’t earned many snaps during his career, but he’s shown a knack for getting to the ball when he does play.
In past seasons he would have earned more playing time than he has the last two years, but he was buried on a depth chart that had four ends that will likely be high NFL draft picks.
Ademilola could play either drop or end, but he’s likely to get a chance to compete for the backup end position behind Ogundeji. He’ll never blow anyone away with length or elite athleticism, but I won’t be at all surprised if he does in 2020 what Jones did in 2019, which is get overshadowed by the flashier players, but at the end of the day he’ll just produce and make plays.
A pair of rising sophomores will also get a chance to compete for a rotation role in 2020.
There might not be a more physically gifted end on the roster than rising sophomore Isaiah Foskey. Blessed with a rare combination of length, power and athleticism, Foskey possesses the potential to be dominant some day, but will that happen in 2020 or will he need more time to learn the nuances of the position. That remains to be seen.
Foskey gets by on God-given ability right now, so the spring focus needs to be on becoming a more technically sound player. As his technique improves so will his production. As his ability to produce improves we’ll start to see him become the kind of impact player off the bench that Hayes and Ogundeji were this past season.
One question I have about Foskey is does he stay at drop, grow into an end or play both positions this season? His unique skills allow him to fit at both positions, but will the staff want him cross-training so early in his career while he’s still learning the basics of playing on the edge? We should start to see this question find an answer during the spring.
NaNa Osafo-Mensah enters his second spring at Notre Dame, and he’ll need to show growth the next few months if he wants to be a factor in the rotation next season. Osafo-Mensah has a bit more length than Ademilola, but he’s not nearly technically advanced as his position-mate. How quickly he can close the gap from an assignment and technique standpoint will determine if the talented Texan can force his way into the lineup.
Three newcomers will be part of the spring defensive line, and we know where two of them will begin their careers.
Of all the freshmen defenders, Jordan Botelho might have the best chance at earning playing time his first season. Botelho lacks the length of other ends, with a body that looks more like an inside linebacker than a drop, but he plays with a relentless motor, is an outstanding athlete and brings strong edge rushing skills to the defense.
Botelho played outside and inside linebacker during his prep career, and at both spots he was tasked with playing in coverage, where he thrived. Botelho should be able to quickly adapt to the coverage part of the position, and he has the punch, leverage and technique to handle the run game relatively quickly. His skillset should allow him to become a true three-down drop, but he was listed at 229 pounds on signing day, so we need to see if he can physically hold up.
We’ll have a better feel for where he is by the end of spring, but do not be surprised if Botelho is a defender that impresses during the spring.
I’m curious to see how advanced German native Alexander Ehrensberger looks physically. Him playing in Germany made it hard to know gauge how quickly he’ll be able to adapt to the college game. What we did see on film was a player with tremendous length, power and quickness. If he can quickly pick up the technical part of the game he could be a surprise contributor early in his career, but that’s more of a guess since we don’t know where he’ll be.
My highest ranked defender in the 2020 class is Rylie Mills, whose game I think will ultimately allow him to move inside, where he could be an impact three-technique. But right now Mills is 250 pounds, which better suits the end position, and he showed the ability as a prep player to be an impact power player on the edge. Mills doesn’t project to be an impact pass rusher as an edge player, but I wouldn’t be surprised too see him earn some first and second down snaps against running teams as an end, where he can use his quickness, power and playmaking ability to find an early role.
Of course, the staff could choose to just start him inside and give him a year to gain the necessary girth and strength to handle that position.
1. How healthy will Hayes be, and will he finally become an impact edge rusher?
2. Is Ogundeji ready to take the next step and become a dominant force on the strongside?
3. Will Foskey make the necessary strides to become a productive part of the rotation?
4. Can Oghoufo and Ademilola seize control of the backup spots and provide the defense with the production it got from the bench last season?
5. How quickly can the freshmen get up to speed?